Let’s talk about dysfunctional families for a second. Let’s talk about the ones that embarrass you – the non-charming variety of humiliation. The ones you blame consistently for the mishaps in your own psyche. The ones for whom – ultimately – you’d punch a baby unicorn should harm come even close.
The ambient theme of family in the name of all things rings proud and quite loud in the hilarious and sad Little Miss Sunshine. The dramedy is carried by a number of misfits making up a family unit. In the opening scene, we see the first of these misfits Sheryl (Toni Collette) driving while she shouts mirthlessly over the phone to her husband. “No, I’m NOT smoking again!” she insists, tossing her cigarette out the window. To put context to the scene, Sheryl is speaking to her ironically failed inspirational speaker husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) all while she is on her way to a mental hospital to pick up Frank (Steve Carell), her number one Proust scholar brother from lockdown after a suicide attempt. Their maladjustment together is put into further perspective as everyone gathers at the Hoover’s home for an all American meal of store-bought fried chicken: Olive (Abigail Breslin), an undeniably sweet, overweight beauty pageant hopeful takes a seat at the table alongside Dwayne (Paul Dano), her voluntarily mute, nihilistic older teenage brother, and Richard’s father simply called Grandpa (Alan Arkin), fresh out of eviction from nursing home for bad behavior on multiple degrees. The misfits bond in the midst of their quirky clashing on the road to California, wherein dysfunction is but a punch line in the film. An endearing one at that.
The Hoovers are driving from Albequerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California to support Olive in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. And like every road trip, personalities alternate between clashing and shining as events unfold, testing the family’s patience with the situation at hand, not to mention one another. Grandpa and Richard are clearly no match for each other despite their genetic relations, as Richard powerlessly yells at him from the driver’s seat to stop his corrupting tirades at the dark and impressionable Dwayne. “Don’t you start doing that shit. When you’re young, you’re crazy to do that shit. When you’re old, you’re crazy not to,” Grandpa preaches to Dwayne on heroin.
Frank listens to these conversations and asks appropriate, well-timed questions with a hint of sarcasm like the intellectual that he is. Sheryl rolls her eyes as she juggles between her roles as the mediating force of the family and frayed mother at her wit’s end. Olive is Olive as always – innocent and light like a sparkly glitter bomb keeping her otherwise wayward family together with purpose.
The dichotomy between the Hoover’s collectively trodden persona and their ultimate mission of arriving at a California beauty pageant for little girls delightfully highlights perhaps the most nod-worthy theme of the film: staying afloat amongst life’s incessant nonsense. There is no doubt that – paired with the family-types spray-tanning their five-year olds – the Hoovers are an alternative bunch. Maybe they wished they were fashionably alternative – a pseudo-rebellion against the clear indication that, especially in this particular microcosm of the world, they do not belong. But this isn’t so for the Hoovers. They are derelict in their dignity as Richard gets down on his knees, begging the pageant’s manager with eyebrow raise-worthy mafia hair to allow Olive’s place in the pageant despite his life’s purpose on steadfast charisma. They are shaken up and afraid as Dwayne endures a terrifying nervous breakdown mid-trip. “Divorce? Bankrupt? Suicide? You’re fucking losers! Please leave me here, Mom. Please,” he screams at his speechless family after months of a disciplined vow of silence. They are frank in their round-table family discussions on topics including suicide and body image, whether a child may or may not be present. In other words, the Hoovers have never made an American family look so normal.
Storyline aside, Little Miss Sunshine is aesthetically and euphoniously harmonizing to echo its complicated characters. We often see the Hoovers pile into their bright yellow VW van that is often shot in wide screen against the backdrop of the reddish hues of their long drive through the American South West. It’s a small lemon against imagery of wide and heavy blue skies exuding tones of soldiering on through daunting apprehension and not the-world-is-your-oyster kind of positive regard. The Hoovers journey on through highway after highway to the film’s piano and violin-tinged soundtrack. A sequence of accordions initiates the melody, introducing a silly bounciness that soon gives way to the straightforward single- noted piano tune, bringing in a poignancy that adds a deeper dimension to the track’s at first playful energy. A number of string instruments settles the climax of the music; long, descending notes portray sweet sadness – or sad sweetness – despite the forte that exists in soundtrack’s entirety.
Little Miss Sunshine is affectingly honest in its depiction of the complexities involved in family relationships. The tale of this disillusioned family gets ambitiously nonsensical at times, but isn’t this why we watch movies in the first place – to witness an entertaining story unfold, all while hitting the right kinds of feels? The Hoovers are thorny, multi-dimensional people but stay at their united front – a family – when push ultimately comes to shove. And you can bet that baby unicorn that it will stay that way.
Written by Dara Kim